On the first day Macron created a party, on the second a one-party state
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The French president’s fledgling new party is on course to win a staggering three-quarters of all seats in the National Assembly, effectively stamping out all opposition. And yet only 15% of registered voters cast ballots in its favour on Sunday.
The leafy 16th arrondissement of Paris, the French capital’s westernmost borough, has precious little in common with the 11th district in the east – least of all when it comes to politics. One is white and wealthy, the other multi-ethnic and socially diverse. It is not uncommon for the former to vote 80% conservative, while the latter leans dramatically to the left. And yet in the first round of legislative elections on Sunday, both put candidates from Macron’s centrist party in the lead with over 43% of the vote. Clearly something extraordinary is afoot.
Across the country, candidates from La République en Marche (LREM) – many of them political novices – have ripped apart the political script, storming bastions of the right and the left with astonishing ease. Projections show them taking as many as 430 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly in next week’s run-off. And that’s without counting the handful of survivors from mainstream parties of the left and the right who have already pledged to support France’s new president, desperate to jump onto Macron’s Ark and escape the Flood.
For a man who vowed to overturn the “system”, the 39-year-old president is now about to milk it like no-one before him. His party didn’t even exit 15 months ago. But if the first-round trend is confirmed on June 18, France’s two-round electoral system will give LREM lawmakers one of the biggest parliamentary majorities France has ever seen, handing the man to whom they owe everything a virtual monopoly on power.
Abstention, the other record
To many foreign observers baffled by Britain’s post-Brexit meltdown and Donald Trump’s quixotic US presidency, France is suddenly looking like a beacon of stability and – would you believe it – positivity. Macron is widely regarded as progressive and forward-looking. With few exceptions (notably Russia and the Trump administration), his election to the presidency has been welcomed across the globe, particularly among France’s European partners. Many would agree with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s boast on Sunday that “France is back” – whatever that means.
But Macron’s triumph comes with a number of important caveats, starting with the massive level of abstention that made it possible. For the first time in history, turnout in a legislative election has slumped to below 50%. That means the 32.2% share of the vote picked up by LREM candidates actually represents a mere 15.2% of the electorate. “Never before has a party won so many seats with so few votes,” noted Le Monde, France’s daily of record, in an editorial on Monday. It warned of a deficit of legitimacy for Macron and his party as they proceed to enact sweeping reforms in the coming months.
Several factors help explain the record level of abstention in a country that is generally regarded as heavily politicised. One is the widespread election fatigue accumulated over more than 12 months of non-stop campaigning, successive primaries, and a two-round presidential election. Another is the very nature of France’s electoral system, in which legislative elections tend to be seen as a sideshow to the all-important presidential bout. With his hyper-personalisation of politics, Macron has dramatically increased this imbalance.
Perhaps the single most important factor is voters’ widespread disgust with the mainstream parties of right and left that have dominated French politics for decades. The conservative Les Républicains will do well to pick up a hundred seats next Sunday, their lowest-ever tally. As for the former ruling Socialists, they have been all but wiped out. Macron, who served as finance minister in the outgoing Socialist administration, has been as much a beneficiary as he has been an instigator of their demise.
Nor have the other parties that were hoping to ride the anti-establishment wave succeeded in achieving a breakthrough in parliament. The far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, the runner-up in last month’s presidential contest, has failed to translate its strong showing in the presidential election into parliamentary seats (it is forecast to pick up 5 at best). So has the radical-left France Insoumise, which was so desperate to become France’s main left-wing force that it focused its attacks on the already weakened Socialists. The result of this fratricidal war will be a parliament with virtually no left wing whatsoever.
New politics, or the end of politics?
In practical terms, a near clean sweep of seats by LREM novices could prove problematic when it comes to filling key positions – speaker, majority leader, and the many heads of parliamentary commissions – that require a minimum of experience. It will also expose Macron’s party to a possible backlash should voters be disappointed, since they will have no one else to vent their anger at. More damagingly, the lack of opposition threatens to deprive French democracy of checks and balances, and stymie the political debate. In this case, Macron’s promised “new politics” would merely spell the end of politics.
However, it is quite possible that LREM will eventually splinter into factions that mirror the divisions of the very system it supplanted. After all, how does one reconcile the diametrically opposed aspirations of voters in places like the 16th and 11th arrondissements of Paris? It is also more than likely that the battle will shift to the streets of France, where trade unions and the rump of the political left are bound to challenge Macron’s planned labour reforms. Already, the French president has suggested he will seek to bypass parliament by asking lawmakers to give his government the power to proceed by decree, in order to speed up legislation. That hardly points to a healthy democracy.
Sunday’s dismal turnout and general voter apathy stood in stark contrast with the startling polls held just a few days earlier in another election-weary country, Britain. Think of the irony: France, a country so often deemed ungovernable, is about to give its untested president free reign to do whatever he likes, just as the UK lurches into ungovernability. At first glance, French democracy is in better shape. But at least British voters – and the youngest in particular – have put a check on their government, depriving it of the ability to push for a deeply divisive “hard” Brexit. Should the French find they profoundly dislike what Macron does, they will have few means to stop him – other than manning the barricades.